NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland -- The founder of the "Storm Area 51" Facebook event recently canceled the alien-enthusiast get-together outside the military installation in Nevada, but the U.S. Air Force is still sending reinforcements just in case things get out of hand, top officials said Tuesday.
"Our nation has secrets, and those secrets deserve to be protected," Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said alongside Acting Air Force Secretary Matt Donovan during a roundtable discussion here at the annual Air, Space and Cyber conference. "People deserve to have our nation's secrets protected."
Donovan said he recently asked for a briefing from Air Force operations staff on how they're coordinating with local law enforcement agencies should there still be a mass gathering. The event was originally scheduled for Sept. 20.
"There's a lot of media attention, so they're expecting some folks to show up there," he said. "We're prepared, and we've provided them additional security personnel, as well as additional barricades."
The officials said they have been monitoring the event and recently consulted with Gen. Terrence O'Shaughnessy, head of Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command. Even though "it's an Air Force property, it's also a NORTHCOM mission," Goldfein said.
Donovan said the Air Force also gave briefings to some congressional staff members who were curious about the service's response.
Goldfein quipped that he "loved Richard Branson's story" that was told at the conference Monday.
Branson, the billionaire founder of Virgin Group and the conference's keynote speaker, told audiences he enjoys detailed April Fool's pranks, and in 1989, successfully convinced local authorities in Surrey, England, that an alien space ship had landed in the town.
Branson and a friend had piloted a hot air balloon that looked like a spaceship and landed it just outside London. When the cops came to investigate, his friend emerged dressed in an alien costume, causing the police to flee.
When asked whether the Air Force hides aliens at Area 51, Goldfien deflected and pointed back to the humor of Branson's story.
"But all joking aside, we are taking this very seriously," he said of the service's response.
Millions signed up for the event, formally called "Storm Area 51, They Can't Stop Us All."
The plan was to overrun the clandestine base to "see them aliens," but Matty Roberts, the event's originator, pulled the plug on the viral event last week.
"There's no safety or security that can really be promised," Roberts told The Washington Post on Sept. 10, saying he feared a potential "humanitarian disaster."
"I didn't feel comfortable with inviting even my friends and family out to this event, let alone these thousands of strangers," he said.